Charles Schultz once said, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.” And truly, one of the great challenges of being human is encountering other humans. It is an unavoidable truth that interacting with people usually results in some kind of reaction, often strongly emotional. There are interactions that can provoke a great amount of frustration, irritation, or impatience. Sometimes they fuel our weaknesses and shortcomings, or push our hot-buttons.
Aren’t there times that you just wish that you could make people different? Fix their annoying quirks? Rid them of their neuroses? Convince them to stop being manipulative, controlling or passive aggressive? Sometimes, we even try. By now I’m sure you’ve noticed; it doesn’t work.
When dealing with people, there is one important truth. The only person you can change is yourself.
When I say “change yourself,” I mean change your relationship to the circumstances and events created by the interaction with people and the frustrations that result. How you respond can easily contribute to further deterioration of the situation. But in every moment, there is an opportunity to be the force for healing, diffusing tension or, at the very least, preventing an escalation of bad feelings. The only action required is to monitor your reaction and learn to adjust your response.
Self-examination, meditation and therapy can assist in the quantity and quality of your reaction to events, but essentially, we have little control over our reactions to situations. What we do have is a choice in how we respond to those reactions.
What this means will be clearer if we have a common definition of “reaction” and “response.”
A “reaction” is the unbidden emotional and physiological result of encountering an event, circumstance or individual. It is the “gut” response to circumstances and events that we experience subconsciously and often has a body sense that accompanies it.
A “response” is the action taken as a result of the reaction. It is the attitude that is assumed when experiencing a reaction. This sometimes then manifests in a particular tone of voice, assumption of body posture, word choice or energetic response.
The time frame between the reaction and the response can be so small that they can seem undifferentiated. However, there is a small but important window of opportunity for recognizing reaction before response, and a method for finding that window lies in perceiving and understanding your physiological feedback to a situation before you respond in a way that has every likelihood of causing the situation to exacerbate or deteriorate.
I want to assure you that your own suffering (stress) is present, real, inevitable and intricately bound with our humanity and our capacity for compassion. This is not to deny the experience of your feelings, but to warn that it’s likely to lead down a path of self-indulgence and immersion. It can be observed and acknowledged without feeding into the energy, creating a feedback loop of destructive words, actions and feelings.
Before you can adjust your relative attitude to irritation or discomfort, you need to be able to have an understanding of what your reaction is and the state of being that it produces in you. The most consistent and reliable standard against which you can measure your reactivity is with you all the time – your body. Next time you find yourself in a position where you find yourself being reactive to the words, presence, or actions of others, and you can find a moment of clarity, try the following exercise.
Allow yourself to notice any of these physiological responses. There is no need to change, alter, or regulate them, just feel and acknowledge them in your body:
- A change in your relationship to gravity
- An increased sense of restriction or tightness somewhere
- A changed speed of bodily functions – breath, heart rate, digestion, actions
- An increased recognition or consciousness of a segment of the body
- Sounds – louder, rushing in your ears
- Vision – tunnel vision, brighter colors, blurriness
The more you can be aware of your reactions to difficult circumstances, the more you can open up that space between reacting and responding. That space is your opportunity to govern your response, and to become an agent of healing.